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Abe refuses to sack labor minister over wage stats scandal

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waits for deliberations to resume during a plenary session of the upper house as members of the steering committee engage in discussions on Jan. 29, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a House of Councilors plenary session on Jan. 29 that he wants labor minister Takumi Nemoto to continue tackling the wage survey data corruption problem at his ministry, refusing an opposition demand that the minister step down.

"I want him to continue doing his best to prevent a recurrence" of the labor stats scandal, Abe said, adding that the issue does not affect the achievements of his "Abenomics" economic policy mix. Abe also apologized over the matter, saying that he is seriously facing up to responsibility for the problem that had continued for 15 years from 2004.

Inaccuracies with wage and working hour data, trigged by an incorrect collection method used for the Monthly Labor Survey by ministry officials, caused tens of billions of yen in payment shortfalls for work-related benefits affecting millions of people. The data is also used in calculating the nation's gross domestic product and other important indices measuring the nation's economic health.

In response to the scandal, Nemoto's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare set up a third-party special inspection panel. But its method of having senior ministry officials interview their subordinates who caused the problem has faced strong criticism as eroding the investigation's independence and objectivity.

The issue was taken up during the upper house meeting on Jan. 29, and Nemoto explained that he and his top deputies failed to disclose those details during the Jan. 24 out-of-session Diet hearings "because no one asked about it."

Nemoto told the House of Councillors that he will "sincerely face" criticism that labor ministry officials involved have a "very shallow understanding" about the need for the integrity of government statistics, and that the ministry lacks organizational discipline.

Opposition lawmakers attacked Abe over this issue. Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) legislator Naoki Kazama said that the foundations have been lost for the argument that Abenomics is making a difference after nominal wages were revised downward in response to the labor data corruption scandal.

Abe argued back, insisting that he never used that labor data alone to argue that his economic policies were making achievements.

Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) member Shinji Morimoto questioned Abe if he would reconsider his plan to raise the consumption tax in October considering the statistics problem. The premier said he would go ahead with the hike.

About the fact that the questioning of labor bureaucrats involved in the stats scandal was carried out in part by the second and third top officials of the ministry, Nemoto said that he made changes so that only outsider members of the third-party panel will interview relevant ministry officials.

The minister also denied having any intention to step down, saying his responsibility is "to try to recover public confidence" in the ministry and government statistics. Nemoto also insisted that a suggestion by some opposition lawmakers that the data problem was an effort to play up the positive effects of Abenomics "is not the case."

--- Concerns deepen inside ruling party over data scandal

Meanwhile, concerns are growing inside the government and the ruling camp about fallout from the data corruption scandal and the labor ministry's delayed response. Lawmakers specializing in labor issues are beginning to sense that the issue would have a serious negative impact on the administration.

"What the hell is the labor ministry thinking?" lamented a senior official of the prime minister's office. The high-ranking official suggested that there is a possibility of additional punishments meted out against ministry officials, on top of the 22 already reprimanded.

Masatoshi Ishida, minister of internal affairs and communications, did not hide his frustration against the labor ministry during a Jan. 29 press conference. "It's important to conduct (the interviews) properly by maintaining the third-party nature" of the probe, said the minister, who is overseeing the nation's central government statistics.

Junior ruling coalition partner Komeito demanded a more detailed explanation about the statistics problem at a meeting of the party's division dealing with labor and health matters. The issue was included by changing the original meeting program, but ministry officials could not give clear answers to many of the questions, repeating that they are "checking on them."

Michiyo Takagi, who heads the Komeito health and labor division, pointed out that the big question in the scandal was whether there was an organizational effort to cover up the irregularities. "The probe should include an angle that "passive" efforts were made to hide the problem.

Opposition CDP Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama demanded that Nemoto resign. "More questions than answers are coming out from deliberations under Mr. Nemoto," said Fukuyama. A senior CDP official was eager to force the labor minister to resign, saying, "Nemoto will not survive this. We are going to put together a strategy on how to make him step down."

Top Abe administration officials are trying to distance themselves from the labor ministry. "The ministry will handle the matter properly," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, while LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai stated that he wants the ministry "to step up to the plate." A former LDP labor minister sounded concerned about the current situation. "The ministry is pathetic," the official said. "We've got a very long way to go to restore people's trust."

(Japanese original by Yusuke Matsukura, Akira Murao and Hiroshi Odanaka, Political News Department)

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